Elevating the Voice for Disability and Access Across the Lifespan: OCALI’s Office of Policy

Office of Policy

For the last four years, under the leadership of Melissa Bacon, Director of Government Relations and Stakeholder Engagement, OCALI’s Office of Policy has been recognized as a trusted, third-party resource to help policy-makers, business leaders, and other decision-makers link research to real life and real life to policy initiatives that benefit Ohioans.

“Public policy has the potential to significantly impact the lives of people with disabilities and their families,” said Melissa. “When people with disabilities are left out of the process, when best-practices, research, and data don’t include disability, and when funding decisions don’t consider disability, we’re missing an important voice. We want to make sure that people with disabilities and their families are always part of the discussion and their voices are heard.”

Teresa Kobelt and Melissa Bacon sitting at desk
Teresa Kobelt and Melissa Bacon of the OCALI Office of Policy

As a non-partisan organization, OCALI’s Office of Policy is committed to working across sectors—both public and private—to inform, consult, collaborate, and innovate so people with disabilities and their families can live their best lives.

“We know government isn’t the only answer and that’s why we also work in the private sector to build partnerships, form working groups, and strengthen support and understanding throughout the state, and across the country, when possible,” said Melissa.

Recognizing the important role of data, research, and emerging practices in informing public policy, the Office recently expanded the team to include Teresa Kobelt, formerly the Director for OCALI’s Family Center. In her new role as Director of Strategy, Innovation, and Forecasting, Teresa brings strong expertise in government relations, policy, research, and partnerships to the team. Together, Melissa and Teresa have more than 30 years of experience, knowledge, and relationships, which they put to work for OCALI.

Combining Personal and Professional Passions

As parents of children with disabilities, Melissa and Teresa also have a personal stake in their work at OCALI.

“When you learn that your child has a disability, your parenting lens changes, but so does your view of the world—and your perspective of every aspect of life,” said Melissa. “You look for the opportunities, but you also are constantly keeping watch for barriers that stand in the way of those opportunities. I’m proud to be able to work on issues that I not only believe are fundamental human rights, but also that I feel a deep personal connection to—and that may impact my family directly.”

“Our family has experienced multiple systems and services—education, developmental disabilities, medicaid, and health. The list goes on,” said Teresa. “I know what happens when rates change, when waiting lists change, and when services change. I know how hard it can be to navigate systems. I know how policy affects real lives.”

Areas of Focus

With an ambitious list of goals for the Office this year, Melissa and Teresa are committed to working together to:

Pay attention: “We research and analyze the latest data, legislation, lawsuits, practices, policies, and models. We keep our eyes and ears open for opportunity and action.”

Initiate: “When we see an opportunity, identify a concern, or hear about a problem, we act. We love to share articles, write white papers, organize meetings, and more to spark action.”

Bring people together: “We have access to the best and brightest minds and hearts in disability. Our blue-ribbon panels, collaboratives, and work groups include internationally-recognized researchers, thought leaders, people with disabilities, and families. When we come together, we generate ideas, raise awareness, and share information. That’s where there’s incredible power.”

Participate: “When it comes to public policy, we research, analyze, inform, recommend, propose, and educate. We show up. We are non-partisan. Our participation and action are based on what we know, what research shows, and what the experts say, not politics.”

Some of the barriers the Office of Policy is trying to overcome are the inequities experienced by people with disabilities and their families and information gaps experienced by the public and private sector.

Teresa explains, “We know that people with disabilities and their families experience inequities across the board. And, if people don’t know about inequities, outcomes, or problems, they can’t work together on solutions. When they know more, they can do better.”

New Leadership, New Opportunities

With a new administration in Ohio comes a great opportunity to share information, research, and real-life stories of impact. From the state level to the federal level, keeping disability in front of policy and other decision-makers is critical to promoting access for people with disabilities.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a great example of where a lot of work and time have been put in, more than 28 years, and the outcome still doesn’t meet the original intent—we still don’t have universal access in certain areas,” said Melissa. “Public policy is often made for ‘all people,’ but we see people with disabilities left out or not considered, not represented in the ‘all.’ With disability issues, details really matter. That’s why we’re working hard to help our policy makers and others understand what the research and data for real people with disabilities tell us.”

For example, as the Office of Policy continues to examine outcome data for students and individuals with disabilities in Ohio, two important questions emerge. The first is whether the state is including disability in equity and access conversations, and using evidence-based practices that really do work for ‘all,’ including people with disabilities. The second is are we aligning the research to real-life and real-life to policy so that people with disabilities and their families have every opportunity to live their best lives for their whole lives?

“We will keep these questions at the forefront of the new administration,” said Teresa. “We’re excited by the opportunity to work with them to ensure the voices of people with disabilities are heard.”

Inspiring Change

When asked about how they’re inspiring change for people with disabilities, Melissa and Teresa agreed that they’re both lucky to bring their personal passion for people with disabilities to their work.

“We’re about people with disabilities and their families,” said Melissa. “Our work is the result of the best minds and best hearts.”

“Being able to use my personal experiences and systems knowledge to inspire change on a larger scale is pretty unique, and I feel fortunate to be able to do that,” said Teresa.

Additional Reading

Disability Issues Tend to be Put on a Back Burner